With help of a support system, there lies an opportunity to unleash the entrepreneurial potential of the SHG network by exploring possibilities for small businesses across sectors.

A group of women sitting and working togetherImage for representation
Features Self-help Groups Saturday, May 09, 2020 - 15:55

By Aakriti Gupta and Hrishikesh Thakur

Sreeja, an entrepreneur from Poothakulam, Kollam, was going through a strenuous time during the COVID-19 lockdown. Worried about her catering group, Thanima, which she and her fellow members started in 2008, Sreeja was running out of means to run the business. However, the announcement of Kerala’s community kitchen initiative opened few doors of financial relief for Sreeja.

Currently, she is extending support to her gram panchayat by running a community kitchen where her group delivers packaged food to approximately 130 people every day at Rs 20 per meal. Eliminating all the expenses, Sreeja and her catering group is able to return home with Rs 3,000-3,500 every day. 

While an unrelenting public health crisis looms over the economy, state governments, under the ambit of the National Rural Livelihoods Mission (NRLM), have recognized the opportunity to explore employment generating ventures for women self-help group (SHG) federations.

According to the Ministry of Rural Development (MoRD), currently there are more than 12,374 community kitchens run by SHG women across four states. More than 35,000 SHG members from 28 states are engaged in manufacturing face masks. Approximately 1,000 SHGs in 13 States are engaged in daily production of hand sanitisers. Similar figures are being reported for items such as protective gear, hand wash products etc.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as Kudumbashree have empowered women to nurture the spirit of entrepreneurship by unlocking opportunities in various sectors. Women in Kerala have taken great strides in the sectors of foodservice, tourism, textiles, etc.

Cafe Kudumbashree, a chain of restaurants and catering services, and Nutrimix are pioneering models in creating multiple job opportunities and quality products. In the foodservice sector, with approximately 2,000 units run by 12,000 women across Kerala and an annual turnover of around Rs.100 crore, Cafe Kudumbashree is a concrete example of developing women as entrepreneurs by providing them a platform to professionally harness their skills.

The Nutrimix model, with more than 200 centres run by approximately 2100 women, and an annual turnover of around Rs 110 crore is an example of leveraging government policy to utilize SHGs to produce take-home rations for children receiving services from anganwadis under the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS). 

A similar story comes from Hajipur, Bihar where a group of ten SHG (Jeevika) members are running a canteen at a district hospital. Known as Didi ki Rasoi, the canteen provides quality food to the inpatients and hospital staff. These SHG women have now become icons for other SHG women of Buxar, Purnia or Sheikhpura in Bihar who are keen to start similar ventures.

It is therefore important to identify and popularise good icons and influencers from the SHG network who can ignite the spirit of entrepreneurship among women through their real, firsthand narratives.

Need for a support system

Moving into a post COVID world, with a disrupted economy, many small businesses including the ones run by SHG women in rural areas are on the brink of collapse. The present situation necessitates a support system, which can help in risk mitigation of SHG-owned businesses in the post COVID scenario.

The system should firstly focus on rebuilding confidence among SHG entrepreneurs by providing immediate credit support to overcome shortage of cash flow, mainly for working capital.

Secondly, it should focus on building a revival strategy consisting of professional and trustworthy guidance coupled with improved marketing arrangements for these businesses.

With the help of a support system, there lies an opportunity to unleash the entrepreneurial potential of the SHG network by exploring possibilities for small businesses across sectors.

The current crisis has given an opportunity to reflect on the existing economic order and has provided the attention long overdue to small businesses. Policy makers should now take a lead in bringing small businesses into key discussion on economic growth. Time has come for like-minded collaboration and coalition among ministries and other organizations to respond to the current economic crisis.

Aakriti Gupta and Hrishikesh Thakur are social development professionals, working with community networks in areas of rural livelihood, local governance and policy. While Aakriti is an alumnus of Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Hrishikesh is an alumnus of IIT.